But even as Christians, knowing that we must forgive if we expect to be forgiven ourselves, we do not always realize that there are different degrees of forgiveness and that we must be careful not to accept something that feels like forgiveness on our part, but really is not.
The simplest way to understand this is to realize the difference between what we might call active and passive forgiveness.
When we find it difficult to forgive someone, we sometimes forgive them passively. This means that we may stop ourselves from talking and thinking negatively about the person and certainly from considering any kind of revenge or “getting even” with them. Yet the level of forgiveness stops there – at a kind of “letter of the law” level. Ultimately we may settle into a kind of indifference toward the individual. We do not see the person who has wronged us as either a friend or an enemy, but we feel content in not actively being negative about him or her. Unfortunately, if we fall into this kind of passive attitude, we may never cross over into a more positive attitude of true forgiveness toward the person.
How do we know if we are guilty of this kind of minimal, “passive” forgiveness? We can often determine this by considering how we react to the person. Do we tend to keep interaction with them to a minimum, or at least to a lesser degree than before they hurt us in some way? Do we never really say or do anything positive to them? If someone else says something complimentary about the person, do we simply smile and not comment? Any of these reactions can indicate that our relationship with them is a passive compromise and not the result of true forgiveness.
Unlike passive forgiveness, true active forgiveness goes beyond emotional and spiritual indifference. That is why true forgiveness is so hard to accomplish when we have been deeply hurt. It’s not human to want to help the person who hurts us – especially if the person who hurt us clearly did so intentionally. Yet completely forgiving someone means that, regardless of what they have done, we treat them in the same way we did before they hurt us, that we live with a feeling of compassion for the other person.
That is the kind of forgiveness demonstrated by Christ in his words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), by Stephen regarding those who killed him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60), and by countless Christians who have been wronged since that time. In fact, these two prayers show us how we can know that our forgiveness is active and not passive. We do not pray for those we only nominally forgive. If we can pray for those we need to forgive, we are actively forgiving them.
Active forgiveness does not mean we need to stay in abusive or hurtful relationships or situations. We must certainly forgive endlessly and without restriction (Matthew 18:21-22), but sometimes it is necessary to forgive from a distance in order to stop the wrongful cycle of hurt or harm (Acts 12:17, etc.).
But whether we are able to stay in situations or it is wiser to remove ourselves from them, our forgiveness must always be active and full. Whenever possible our forgiveness should be accompanied with active love: “… Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 26:27-28). Such a fully active demonstration of forgiveness is not always possible, but as we saw in the prayers of Jesus and Stephen, we can always forgive actively by praying for those who have hurt or offended us. Anything less is passive forgiveness.
* See also our article “The Second Step of Forgiveness.”